Friday November 20th, 2009

They stood next to the driver's side door, telling jokes and laughing like kids at recess. The start of the first practice session for NASCAR's season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway was still five minutes away on Friday and Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus, and Ron Malec -- the core of the No. 48 dynasty -- couldn't have appeared more relaxed. But then, in an instant, as if the end-of-recess bell had rang, the trio got down to business.

Knaus, the crew chief, rubbed his hands over the exterior of the car, petting it like he would his family dog. Malec, the car chief, did a slow lap around the car, making sure everything on it was just so. And Johnson, the driver, hopped in the cockpit of the Lowe's Chevy, put on his Han's device, clicked and tightened his seat belts, fastened his steering wheel to the column, and slipped on his driver's gloves. As 17 photographers clicked away and one writer looked on, Johnson gave the thumbs up to his crew, flipped on his ignition switch, and thundered onto the track for the practice session. Confidence radiated from every one of their movements on Friday.

This is how Johnson's historical weekend began in South Florida. And make no mistake: History will be made here on Sunday. Johnson, who is gunning for his record fourth straight Cup title, currently holds a 108-point lead over Mark Martin in the standings. Even if Martin leads the most laps and wins on Sunday, all Johnson has to do to capture the title is finish 25th or better. For Johnson, accomplishing this should be tantamount to a lazy Sunday afternoon drive. After all, whenever the pressure has been on in the last three years, Johnson and his crew have delivered. It's their hallmark.

"We've been in this position before," Johnson told me the other day. "If something goes wrong on Sunday, I won't panic, Chad won't panic, Ron won't panic, and neither will anyone else on our team. That's what gives me confidence. But in no way are we taking this lightly. We've come too far to have a mental lapse now."

I was on a radio show on Sirius the other day, and when I said that I firmly believed that this championship fight between Johnson and Martin was over, one of the hosts reminded me that, you know, anything can happen in motor sports. Well, of course it can. Of course Johnson could get caught up in a wreck. Of course his engine could explode. Of course he could blow a tire and slam into the wall.

But let's look at a few numbers. No driver in the 61-year history of NASCAR has ever lost the title with a lead as big as Johnson's with one race left. Never happened. And how often does Johnson blow an engine? How about once in his last 154 races. Once. In other words, yes, it's possible that something rarer than a blue moon could transpire on Sunday and cause Johnson some problems, but even if it does, Johnson could easily manage to finish 25th.

Here's how I see the race transpiring: Johnson will be relatively aggressive early, trying to get to the front. He wants to run with the most skilled drivers in the sport -- not the Sam Hornishes of the world. But if Johnson discovers that he doesn't have the car to get to the front, he'll play it conservative, race in the middle of the pack, and always be mindful of who's around.

One thing is certain: No driver will want to wreck Johnson. There's two reasons for this: One, the wrecker wouldn't want to be known as the driver who denied Johnson a shot at history; and two, Johnson is as well liked in the garage as anyone else in the sport. So expect drivers to be overly courteous to Johnson on Sunday and give him plenty of space for all 400 miles.

I know Johnson desperately would like to end the season with a win, so if he has enough horses under the hood and his handling is good, he'll make a charge late if he thinks he's got a shot at the checkers. But he'll also be monitoring the progress of Martin, and that will no doubt influence the decisions of the No. 48 team. If Martin is struggling, Johnson will be more likely to take the chance of ending the season on the ultimate high note.

Bottom line: Johnson will win the championship on Sunday night. If he doesn't take the checkers, whoever wins the race -- my pick, for the record, is Juan Pablo Montoya -- will be overshadowed by the man who will suddenly be able to declare that he's the greatest stock car driver America has ever produced.

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